- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2003

Time and again, Americans have proved to be an enterprising people. A clever breed, they have noted the invention (some 5,500 years ago) of the wheel and built upon that foundation with creativity, curiosity and grit.

For 212 years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has sought to protect the intellectual property of U.S. citizens. Last year, more than 353,000 applications were received for patents, which give an inventor the right to prevent others from making, using or selling his or her invention within the United States for up to 20 years.

The office granted roughly 177,000 patents in the same year all awarded for products that are "new, useful and 'not obvious,' " explains Ruth Ann Nyblod, curator of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum in Arlington. The number of U.S. patents since 1790 totals more than 6.5 million.

Many American inventions are celebrated at the museum, created in 1995 to inform the public about the value of innovation and intellectual property. It's an adjunct to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which occupies 18 buildings in the Crystal City area, employs nearly 7,000 people and is one of 14 bureaus in the Commerce Department.

The sleek, compact (just 1,500 square feet) museum features a rotating exhibit as well as a permanent collection that explains the history and mission of the Patent Office. Until the 1870s, those who applied for patents were required to submit a model of their invention with their applications, Ms. Nyblod says.

The museum showcases a number of these templates, including some submitted voluntarily after the requirement was lifted. One is a model of the "Victor Talking Machine," circa 1906, its heavy stylus resting on a slab of a record nearly as thick as a pencil. An "Improved Machine for Molding and Shaping Dough Into Loaves or Crackers," a patent issued in 1866, makes it possible for a baker to shape dough by machine rather than by hand.

A small exhibit is dedicated to the inventions of Thomas Edison, the record holder at 1,093 patents. It includes his "Electric Lamp" of 1880 as well as his "Magneto-Electric Machine" of 1879, which improved on the technology of the generator.

Some little-known trivia on the inventor includes the following: When Edison was asked how much money he wanted for all of the inventions he had created for Western Union, he decided to accept no less than $5,000.

"Imagine his surprise when Marshall Lefferts, the president of the company, offered him $40,000," Ms. Nyblod says. "When Edison took the check to the bank, the teller gave him the entire amount in $10 and $20 bills. He walked away with the money, but fearing robbery and murder, he stayed up all night. The next day, Lefferts helped Edison open his first bank account."

Children, especially, are quite interested in Edison's inventions because the inventor frequently is studied in school. However, Ms. Nyblod says, children should know that Edison didn't invent the light bulb but rather improved upon a 50-year-old idea.

"He took innovations and created industries around them," she says. "That's what inventing is really about creating jobs for millions of people."

As the population of the nation increased, innovation grew with it, she points out.

"You see different kinds of people being creative that we didn't think were, historically," she says.

In 1809, for example, Mary Dixon Kies received the first U.S. patent issued to a woman. Kies, a Connecticut native, invented a process for weaving straw with silk or thread. Thomas L. Jennings, granted a patent in 1821 for a dry-cleaning process, is believed to have been the first black person to receive a patent for any invention. Judy W. Reed may not have been able to write her name she signed her application with an X but she was able to patent a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough in 1884. She may have been the first black woman to obtain a patent.

"But equally important to the business community is another form of intellectual property trademarks," Ms. Nyblod says.

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design or a combination of them, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

The museum's trademark section contains the signed 1928 application from Walter E. Disney for the trademark of everyone's favorite mouse. Coca-Cola bottles on display date from 1894 to 1977; the shape of the bottle was registered as a trademark in 1977. Robin's-egg blue is a trademark for New York jeweler Tiffany, and the prototype of the "Tiffany's Blue Box" on display was registered with the office in 1998.

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